21 August 2019
Christopher Chung makes his way through a question-and-answer session in Legco. Photo: HKEJ
Christopher Chung makes his way through a question-and-answer session in Legco. Photo: HKEJ

Say what? Chinglish does it for Hong Kong

Hong Kong legislator Christopher Chung got to say a mouthful and even elicited the kind of response he wanted from disgraced MTR Corp. chief executive Jay Walder, the American in the middle of the high-speed rail fiasco.

During a Legislative Council inquiry, Chung spoke in Walder’s native tongue and pulled it off — dubious verbs, strange prepositions and all.

Chung apparently did not mind that by the end of the question-and-answer session, he had become the butt of jokes.

In fairness, Chung did nothing more than use Chinglish, the Chinese adaptation of the Queen’s English which arrived in Hong Kong nearly 170 years ago when the British seized this once barren rock off the coast of China.

And in polite Hong Kong circles, it’s bad manners to pick on a person for speaking Chinglish. In fact, legislators are not expected to have a flawless command of the language, although it often helps an aspiring civil servant navigate Hong Kong’s competitive bureaucracy.

But somehow, Chinglish speakers are looked down on by many of their fellow Hongkongers, especially those with any degree of English education.

Native English speakers and the hordes of foreign expats in Hong Kong tend to be more forgiving. They appreciate that they get by without knowing a word of Chinese because some of their hosts know a smattering of English.

And interestingly, some of the foreigners are beginning to embrace Chinglish themselves. They find certain words and phrases useful in fostering their relationship with their Chinese colleagues. They’re also learning which words to avoid.

For instance, “lah” when attached to a sentence can be disarming, firstly because it signals a friendly, unthreatening approach to a particular situation. 

“Lor” by itself is meaningless but when used in conjunction with a gesture or to emphasize a point, it can be both good and bad. 

(When Chung said “I don’t think so lor” after Walder said he is a professional chief executive, he was merely being spontaneous).

Classic phrases such as “long time no see”, “lose face” and “OK lah” need no elaboration and are the most shared between locals and expats.

What about “open rice”?

It’s both Chinglish and the name of a dining website. But its origins go back to a time when mothers used to announce dinner by saying “open rice lah”.

Lately, “doable” and “eatable” have become part of the Chinglish lexicon with the advent of the internet age. But the Chinese have gone one better with “GF-able”, meaning girlfriendable. 

No doubt English is an advantage in a world city like Hong Kong. Chinglish should enrich it, not diminish it.

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Chief reporter at EJ Insight

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